Sunday, October 9, 2011

In Which Trai Reviews 'Moll Flanders'

The Book: Moll Flanders

The Author: Daniel Defoe

How I Found It: I was very much interested in the BBC miniseries starring Alex Kingston and Daniel Craig, and felt the need to read a banned book for Banned Books Week! My thanks to Project Gutenberg.

The Review: I can give you a plot summary, but to be quite honest, I think Daniel Defoe took care of that with his original title. There is no other way to describe this title without defaulting to the phrase "long-ass." I shall reproduce it here:
The Fortunes and Misfortunes of the Famous Moll Flanders, etc. Who was Born in Newgate, and during a Life of continu'd Variety for Threescore Years, besides her Childhood, was Twelve Year a Whore, five times a Wife (whereof once to her own Brother), Twelve Year a Thief, Eight Year a Transported Felon in Virginia, at last grew Rich, liv'd Honest, and died a Penitent. Written from her own Memorandums.
See what I mean? Defoe must be the king of the Spoiler Title.

To flesh out the summary a bit: Moll is born in Newgate Prison, after her mother, a prostitute slated for execution, "pleads her belly," appealing to the practice of staying the executions of pregnant criminals. She is granted a reprieve and later is transported to the United States to work on the plantations in Virginia, and Moll is taken from her and left to shift for herself. When Moll escapes the gypsies who take her in, she is given to a woman who raises children orphaned by the law.

Moll's great ambition in life is to be a "gentlewoman" and to earn her own money to live on, like one of the ladies in the town. If only Moll knew what that little euphemism meant, but she doesn't. Soon enough, Moll's dignified nature catches the eye of an upstanding family in the town, and she is taken in and raised as one of their maids, while really treated as one of the family. She grows up to be beautiful, and even becomes more accomplished than the family's daughters. However, it is here that Moll gets into her first romantic entanglement: she becomes the mistress of the elder brother, but the younger brother is in love with her.

When Moll's first husband (one of the brothers--I'm not going to say which!) dies, Moll is free to marry again. And so she does--many times. There's the draper, a rich man who'd like to spend his inheritance on a wife. There's her own brother, entirely on accident and much to Moll's grief. There's Jemy, a dishonest rogue who nonetheless becomes the love of Moll's life, no matter how financial circumstances conspire to separate them. There's the banker, trustworthy and loving. There's any number of lovers. And when Moll runs the gamut of her husbands, she finds herself with no other options before her but to be a thief or to starve. Well, then, what's a girl to do?

So really, the book is exactly what it says on the tin--the romances and adventures of the indomitable Moll. I've heard her described variously as the first great female character in literature (a statement I am fully prepared to agree with) and the Wife of Bath's spiritual successor (which, having read her tale in English Lit this semester, I can also agree with). Moll is many things, but above them all, she is perhaps as liberated a woman as it is possible to be. She knows what she wants and she will take it, even if she has to steal it. And I love her.

I had heard this book was a slog, so I approached it with trepidation. One Friday afternoon I picked up TARDIS and selected Moll Flanders, figuring I'd have a go at the first few pages and see what happened. Though people have said this work makes Defoe the father of the modern novel, the man hadn't quite worked out that chapter breaks are beneficial. I figured I'd get bogged down in this mass of a tale--literally a life story, uninterrupted. I think that what helped me along at first was the standardized, modernized spelling and punctuation. I thank Project Gutenberg for that. I know there are critics who hate this movement--that they feel it dumbs down the text, or that it takes away from the original spirit of the work--but to be so very honest, I much prefer it this way, because otherwise my inner grammarian cries and proceeds to hide in her corner and refuse to help me parse things. (As much as I love Jane Austen, reading the Penguin edition of Mansfield Park a few years back made me wince at the state of pre-standardization spelling and grammar.) For anyone who might approach this book with trepidation, I recommend the Gutenberg e-text, or a print edition which standardizes the text (the pictured Collins Classics edition does, for example).

The modernized spelling and grammar helped me to understand the book better than I had anticipated, but what really drove me along was Moll herself. I'm still in awe that a man wrote this book. Sure, certain parts of it can be seen as less than empowering today, but Moll is every bit her own woman and I was cheering for her from the beginning. Defoe's observations about society were dead on. The passage that made me love the book comes early on, when Moll is a servant in the household of that noble family, under the name of "Miss Betty" (we never do know her true name, and she doesn't take on the name Moll until fairly late in her life). Both brothers are in love with Moll, and the younger insists he would have Moll even if she didn't have a fortune. His sister fires back with this observation:
'I wonder at you, brother,’ says the sister. ‘Betty wants but one thing, but she has as good want everything, for the market is against our sex just now; and if a young woman have beauty, birth, breeding, wit, sense, manners, modesty, and all these to an extreme, yet if she have not money, she’s nobody, she had as good want them all for nothing but money now recommends a woman; the men play the game all into their own hands.’
It was that "yet if she have not money, she's nobody" that sold me. Defoe clearly knew exactly what a woman's position in society was at that point, and seems to have written this novel to show just how few options were available to women. What else can a woman do but marry? And if she cannot marry--if she is too old or has too little money--isn't she as good as a beggar?

Moll's refusal to accept society's norms made me love her. She marries plenty of times, sure, but she never loses her independence. She might prostitute herself to live, but she clearly enjoys sex and feels shame only when she repents in the face of her impending execution. As I said before, the empowerment is a bit warped these days, but Moll's impassioned speech to her first lover had me cheering despite that: 'If, then, I have yielded to the importunities of my affection, and if I have been persuaded to believe that I am really, and in the essence of the thing, your wife, shall I now give the lie to all those arguments and call myself your whore, or mistress, which is the same thing? And will you transfer me to your brother? Can you transfer my affection? Can you bid me cease loving you, and bid me love him? It is in my power, think you, to make such a change at demand? No, sir,’ said I, ‘depend upon it ‘tis impossible, and whatever the change of your side may be, I will ever be true; and I had much rather, since it is come that unhappy length, be your whore than your brother’s wife.’

See that? Moll takes a stand. She doesn't let a man rule her desires or her prospects. She even advocates that women not settle, saying that it is the propensity women of the day had of marrying too soon that traps so many of them in unhappy marriages, that if only women waited just a bit more to find a man with good character, or until the fear of not being immediately married has passed, they would fare somewhat better. I was stunned at Defoe's insight into the plight of women in the era, and now I'm mightily curious to check out Roxana, his other work, as well as John Cleland's Fanny Hill, which came twenty years after Moll and was a bit more scandalous. (Cleland wrote his tale from prison and thus had nothing to fear. Defoe presented the tale initially as Moll's autobiography, rather than fiction, so he could keep out of jail!)

The thing I loved most about Defoe's method of telling the story, keeping us in Moll's head all the while, was that I could see exactly why she fell for each husband or lover. I was particularly sold by the initial scenes depicting her courtship with the man she doesn't know is her brother. As she tries to snare him into admitting that he'd marry her even if she were penniless, they write back and forth on a piece of glass with his diamond ring, as he tries to win her over with flowery statements and Moll refutes every one. I was entirely sold on their relationship, and thus understood entirely Moll's revulsion when he turned out to be her brother. Similarly, it was clear why Moll fell so hard for Jemy, and even after their initial assignation was cut short, I was rooting for them. Sure, it's difficult to sympathize with her at times--she has twelve children and entrusts them all to the care of others, with varying degrees of involvement in the care and keeping of each--but it's always easy to see that Moll does what she does because she has to.

I did feel one part of the novel dragged on perhaps too long--I started to become slightly bored with Moll's life as a thief. So many scrapes and methods of stealing are recounted that it becomes difficult to keep track of them all, and Moll has quite a few near-misses with the law, nearly all of which are accounted for. Though it was fascinating to realize how expensive things were back then (fabric cost more than some women had to live on for a year!) and how harsh the law was (the simplest of crimes merited "the steps and the string," as Moll so eloquently puts it), I eventually wanted to tell Moll to get on with it, already, and tell me how she got thrown in Newgate! That section was the only one that bored me, though, and it was towards the end of the novel, so it wasn't hard to get past.

I wasn't expecting it at all, but Moll's story kept me captivated and had me turning pages at every opportunity (TARDIS got the most mileage of her lifetime so far; she was in my bag and ready to be whipped out at any opportunity). She has become probably my favorite female character in all of literature, and I'm even looking to getting a physical copy of the book for rereading purposes. I was delighted to read one of the most notorious books in all of literature, and though this isn't one for the kiddies (probably not for anyone below fifteen!), I'd really recommend it to anyone who feels up to the task. I especially recommend the novel to anyone who has an interest in great portrayals of women in literature. Meet Moll. I think you'll like her.

Coming soon: my reviews of three film adaptations of Moll's story--the aforementioned Alex Kingston miniseries, an extremely loose American adaptation starring Morgan Freeman and Robin Wright Penn, and the 1965 adaptation starring Kim Novak.

1 comment:

  1. Great review! This one's been on my bookshelf for ages, I guess I'll finally give it a go.
    And I'm looking forward to your movie reviews!